The graft allegations shake-up could threaten Western confidence in Kyiv at a crucial moment in the war with Russia.
KYIV, Ukraine—A raft of top Ukrainian officials have been removed from their posts, as President Volodymyr Zelensky tries to contain corruption scandals that could shake Western confidence in his government at a critical moment in the war.
The scandals, while small by the standards of previous Ukrainian governments, are a blow to Mr. Zelensky, who has garnered praise at home and abroad for his leadership during Russia’s invasion.
The swift dispatching of allegedly tainted officials underscores the importance of maintaining a clean image before Ukrainian citizens, who are dying in their thousands on the front lines and enduring economic hardship, as well as for Western governments, which are giving Ukraine billions in aid. In the U.S., Republicans have openly questioned whether the country should continue to fund Ukraine at the same levels as last year.
In his nightly address late Monday, Mr. Zelensky indicated he was seeking to clean house by dismissing officials of various levels.
“Ukraine will not show weakness. The state will not show weakness,” he said.
The governors of five front-line regions were removed on Tuesday, according to Taras Melnychuk, the government’s representative in the Ukrainian parliament. Six top officials in Kyiv were also removed.
Though no reason was given for most of the dismissals, the shake-up follows a series of public-corruption allegations. Valentyn Reznichenko, who had been the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, has been accused in local media of funneling more than $40 million in government contracts to associates, including his girlfriend. The governors of the Kyiv, Sumy, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions were also fired.
Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov resigned Tuesday, following allegations in the local media that the military was overpaying for food services.
Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, who resigned Monday, had been photographed driving a Porsche that Ukrainian media said belonged to a businessman.
Ukraine’s deputy infrastructure minister, Vasyl Lozinskiy, was arrested for allegedly embezzling $400,000 intended for purchasing aid, according to Ukraine’s state anticorruption bureau. He was dismissed from his post earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zelensky signed a decree barring state employees from leaving the country except on official government business. The ban follows reports in the Ukrainian media last week that Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko went on vacation in December to Spain, where he drove a car belonging to a prominent Ukrainian businessman. Mr. Symonenko has also resigned.
“Officials will no longer be able to travel abroad for vacation or for any other nongovernmental purpose,” Mr. Zelensky said in his video address. He added: “If they want to take vacations now, they will take vacations outside the civil service.”
The corruption allegations threaten to shake Western confidence in Ukraine at a key moment. Moscow claims to have taken a number of villages in Ukraine’s east and south in recent weeks. Mr. Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials say they need Western battle tanks to be able to push the Russians out. Ukraine’s allies continue to argue over what equipment they can send.
In the U.S., some Republicans have called for more accounting of the money being sent to Ukraine and questioned whether the U.S. should continue to offer billions in aid.
Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, said he skipped Mr. Zelensky’s speech to Congress last month. “I didn’t want to be part of a photo op asking for more money from the United States government when they haven’t given us a single piece of accounting on anything they’ve spent,” he said at the time.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said on Twitter on Tuesday that the government shake-up showed Mr. Zelensky’s commitment to ensuring no one was above the law.
“Zelensky’s personnel decisions testify to the key priority of the state,” Mr. Podolyak said. “During the war, everyone should understand their responsibility.”
Recent Ukrainian history has been pockmarked by major government corruption scandals. Former President Viktor Yanukovych was accused of stealing billions from the state before he fled to Russia amid mass street protests.
Mr. Zelensky, a former actor in a sitcom where he played a graft-busting president, ran for office pledging to root out corruption. Even before the war, however, he faced criticism among opponents and analysts for removing officials who some believed were pursuing corruption allegations too aggressively for his liking.
In a statement Sunday night, before the spate of official resignations began, Mr. Zelensky said that major changes would be coming this week, including with personnel.
“I want this to be clear: there will be no return to what used to be in the past, to the way various people close to state institutions, or those who spent their entire lives chasing a chair, used to live,” he said.